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Religion in Humanity’s Timeline

Part 3

Small groups of hunter-gathers that lack an incest taboo will be plagued by the ills of inbreeding; therefore exogamy in mating will be selected for.

As ancestor worship strengthens kinship ties over more and more generations, it also expands kinship ties over more nomadic bands creating extensive clans and tribes. These clans and tribes gather periodically at a special place to exchange future mates.

They also started exchanging, i.e. trading, for desirable objects not found in their usual local. Seashells, obsidian, red ocher and other materials have been found in campsites and graves more than 200km away from their closest source.

Based on what we explained in the two previous parts of the series of this article, the stronger the attraction of a special place, the greater the effort that distant clans will make to attend, so gathering spots that are turned into sacred sites of pilgrimage through special seasonal rites will enrich human communities.

There are scholars who think that Homo sapiens sapiens advanced trade networks helped them out compete Homo Neanderthals in Europe (recent studies of Neanderthal DNA have shown that they were a distinct species not ancestral to HS).

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The need for all the clans to show up about the same time leads to fixed seasonal holy days and a religious calendar. The need to mark time for pilgrimage festivals led people to study the cycle of the moon and the movement of the constellations and thus move some of the spirit powers into the sky.

Pilgrimage festivals like Hajj still have a major worldwide spiritual impact and serve in most religions as great sources of religious experience and solidarity.

Most but not all, spiritual forces are viewed as personalities. In most cultures the spirits are personified and ties of kinship relate the various spirits to each other.

And in most of these cultures all or almost all of the active current spirits are said to be descendants of an original Divine couple, or individual, or egg, or something else.

This “creator” god is usually not central to the spiritual realm in later times just as a great-grandparent is understood as being a progenitor who is revered but no longer active or powerful.

Monotheism doesn’t seem to arise naturally from these creator Gods and there is no tendency for the number of Gods to diminish until it arrives at one. Since all living beings come from other living beings, i.e. begets or is begotten, (Surat Al-Ikhlas 112:3 in the Qur’an) it is very hard for people to conceive of a sole God who is the first cause of all the observed diversity.

Although in historic times there have been individuals in every society who preach monotheism, they are almost always reviled and rejected by the great majority of their people.

Map of Neanderthals

Map of areas which were inhabited by the extinct Homo Neanderthals.

Religious Beliefs Benefited Science

Prophets who reveal a book of sacred scripture, are very, very rare and are clearly not the product of natural evolution. This is the major difference between the small number of revealed monotheistic religions and the hundreds of natural polytheistic religions.

In small groups moral values can be based on utilitarian principles like do to others as you want them to do to you, or what goes around comes around. But in larger more complex societies with diverse classes and castes it may be more effective to root ethics in transcendent terms since there aren’t enough repeat interactions to validate utilitarian morality.

As tribes became larger and villages grew, a judge who rewarded good people and punished evil people helped the community to instill its norms in its members.

With the exception of a sociopath, the intelligent minds of Homo sapiens sapiens also have a conscious, self-evaluating, purpose driven aspect that needs to be satisfied because groups with a higher percentage of these kinds of minds were more stable and more effective.

Guilt arises from many activities and needs to be atoned for. Self-discipline provides many advantages for an individual’s survival and success.

Most people, and all societies, need the structure of rules, community and divine discipline to maintain self-control. Sex is a good example that is never simply a natural act for Homo sapiens sapiens. The mind is always involved. It isn’t just chance that the first thing Homo sapiens sapiens becomes self-aware of in the Garden of Eden is the shame of being naked (Qur’an, Surat Al-A’raf 7:22 and Surat Taha 20:121).

Homo sapiens sapiens is the only living specie that thinks it must clothe itself. Evidence of textiles from more than 20,000 years ago has been found in the cold climates of ice age Europe. However, the origin of clothing in Africa isn’t the result of ice age climate but the result of concepts of modesty.

Self-aware intelligent minds became moral minds, which became modest minds. Recent DNA studies of body lice that must lay their eggs in clothing show that these lice evolved from pubic lice that adapted to clothing that covered the pubic area.

This genetic adaptation took place 42 or 72 thousand years ago. Long before rules about property became important, rules of probity were important.

The age when sexual modesty became evident is important. The Bible states that the first thing humans became aware of after internalizing the knowledge of good and evil was their nakedness.

If this has occurred around 50 or 70 thousand years ago it fits right in with increasing evidence of more rapid spiritual and technological development.

The tool kit of Homo Erectus, a species prior to Homo Sapiens, changed very slowly over the course of hundreds of thousands of years while early human tools changed more quickly over the course of tens of thousands of years.

Many paleoanthropologists think that a major improvement in linguistic ability occurred about that time. Physically the Homo sapiens sapiens’s body hasn’t changed much in the last 100,000 years.

The human body 20,000 years before this transition period (60-70,000 years ago) isn’t different from the human body 20,000 years later.

Impact of Religion

Map of humans

Map of world’s areas currently inhabited by modern Humans.

But a major change did occur in artistic and other cultural activities. Perhaps the imaginative faculties of human beings grew substantially thus causing inspiration and creativity to become more frequent and more rapidly spread.

That something very important happened between 60 or 70 thousand years ago is clear even if we do not yet have evidence of exactly what happened.

And in the past 4,000 years when the ancient Egyptians invented writing systems, written revelations started introducing a tremendous force expanding the power of religion both in space and time.

The impact of religions with written revelations on historic human culture is comparable to the impact of modern science and invention on 20th century lifestyles.

Both revealed religions and experimental science together will make the 21st century a turning point in human destiny.

What role does the One God of the revealed religions play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26 humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enosh (Enosh is another name for Adam-Humankind).

That could mean that prior to Enosh all prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate human consciousness. Or perhaps human consciousness had finally risen to the level of being able to receive Divine communication from the One God.

It took over 3,000 years for monotheism to spread world-wide even with scriptural revelations; so it isn’t surprising that it took over a 100,000 years to get to humans ready to receive written revelations.

Spirituality among Homo sapiens sapiens has been evolving for at least 100 or 150 thousand years. It is as deeply, if not more deeply rooted, in the human brain as art or music.

Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness.

The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would soon replace religion has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of people who bear a grudge against religion. Usually their children or grandchildren return to religion.

Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo sapiens sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as humans have creative intelligent minds.

Or as Albert Einstein put it: “What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless are not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.